Criterion Sunday 271: Touchez pas au grisbi (aka Honour Among Thieves, 1954)

Jacques Becker’s Casque d’or a couple years earlier already feels like a generation away from this film (and admittedly does have a period setting), but where that may have been a tight narrative that set up every sequence and followed through with resolve, this somehow feels more like a meandering atmosphere piece. At length the plot does come out, and it revolves around the “loot” (grisbi) of the title, but more than being about a swindle gone wrong, it’s about ageing gangsters reckoning with their mortality. Chief among these is Jean Gabin, who made something of a comeback with this film after years in the wilderness. As Mr Max, he knows he’s getting old — and as if to emphasise this, director Becker has him getting ready for bed, in silk pyjamas brushing his teeth, or looking balefully into a mirror while pinching his chin fat. He surrounds himself with much younger and more glamorous women, as all of his compatriots seem to do (one of them is Jeanne Moreau), almost as if to stave off the effects of age, but they all know they’re headed into obsolescence, and they lash out with regularity against the women and the younger thugs (like the well-built Lino Ventura, the chief antagonist). There’s a brutishness to it, stylishly evoked with all kinds of looming dark shadows around every corner, but it all seems pathetic more than anything else: few of them really seem in control, though Max is more effective at projecting this than some of the others. It’s a film about feelings and sadness, couched in a gangster form, and has more than a hint of The Godfather (not least in the repeated musical motif, very redolent of Nino Rota’s work on that film).

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • There’s another five minutes or so of the Cinéastes de notre temps: Jacques Becker (1967, dir. Claude de Givray) documentary about the director, with the excerpt focusing on this film, naturally. We hear a little bit from Lino Ventura as well as the screenwriter and the original author Albert Simonin, plus a brief appearance from Truffaut to speak about Becker’s influential style.
  • There’s are a few brief interviews with the stars, including one from 20 years later with Lino Ventura (Grisbi was his debut, but by this point he’s an established star), with the composer Jean Wiener focusing on the brief snippet of score that Becker preferred to use (though he’d written much more), and with actor Daniel Cauchy who has a small role as a young thug.
  • The only other extra is a trailer, four minutes of punchy action from the film.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Jacques Becker; Writers Becker and Maurice Griffe (based on the novel by Albert Simonin); Cinematographer Pierre Montazel; Starring Jean Gabin, Lino Ventura, René Dary, Jeanne Moreau; Length 94 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), London, Monday 28 October 2019.

The Irishman (2019)

Today sees the UK release of Harriet, but only two weeks ago we got a brand new biopic from Martin Scorsese. For that I did a themed week around very long films, but this week’s theme means I can revisit that film and post a review. I liked it. I gather some didn’t or felt it somehow less consequential in Scorsese’s oeuvre, but a lot of people have been gunning for him for some throwaway but no less deeply felt comments about superhero movies. Still, there’s a place for everything in modern cinema, and even if three-and-a-half hour gangster epics are mostly being made for streaming services now, it was still a solid box office draw given the very large packed cinema I saw this one in on a Saturday afternoon.


Look, I mean yes Scorsese has some good films (even some great ones) in all genres, but the stuff he’s always been best at capturing is the world of gangsters — a shady world of men closed away behind dark glasses in subterranean lairs — but those worlds have changed as he’s got older. Now the gangsters are old too, they’re old men who have lost things in life, maybe lost everything, lost their friends, alienated their families and are just these old men, dying off and being forgotten. No matter how powerful you were, how much influence you had, eventually people forget your name, your legacy and everything that made you important when you were in your prime, and that’s eventually what it feels like he’s getting at by the end of this film. The de-aging technology has been much discussed, but even when these men are presumably playing 20 or 30-year-olds, back in the 1950s, they still look like old men, move in a hulking slow way — I don’t think that’s wrong for the characters, but in practice they always seem old no matter what the time period is. The timelines are all mixed up, though, as events from one era rush into those from another, because this is a story being told from the perspective of that old, forgotten gangster, as snippets of events seem to hit him and pull him along, and for all of its length, the film is never slow or boring, provided you like this slow-burning vibe that Scorsese is going for. Pacino does his usual big thing, though increasingly looking like Steve Van Zandt as he gets older in the film (and Little Steven is in the film too, in a small part, playing some old school crooner on stage I believe), but the rest of the cast are all about intensity, not least Joe Pesci, who feels like the real standout in this ensemble. It’s a good film, is what I’m saying.

The Irishman film posterCREDITS
Director Martin Scorsese; Writer Steven Zaillian (based on the non-fiction book I Heard You Paint Houses by Charles Brandt); Cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto; Starring Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Joe Pesci, Ray Romano, Anna Paquin, Stephen Graham; Length 209 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Mayfair, London, Saturday 9 November 2019.

Criterion Sunday 270: Casque d’or (1952)

After a decade or two of films noirs, films of picturesque hoodlums lurking in the chiaroscuro frame, the French were pretty excellent at black-and-white crime thrillers, and for me this must rank as one of the finest. Jacques Becker hits all the expected notes with Simone Signoret as Marie, a prostitute who hangs out with some rather unsavoury types (including the no-good Félix), who falls for a carpenter and ex-hood Georges (Serge Reggiani). There’s no shortage of doomed romance, of beautiful close-ups of Signoret and her striking golden hair (the “golden helmet” referenced by the title), and exquisitely framed and filmed sequences, as he falls back into a world of crime all for the sake of Marie. The narrative is tightly structured and moves forward implacably, save for an all-too-brief sequence of the two in love by a riverside somewhere in the middle of the film, before the tragic denouement is set up.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • There’s eight minutes of silent 8mm footage shot on the set of the film, during the sequence where Georges and Marie first meet and dance together, presented with an optional commentary from Philip Kemp, who picks out the key figures and explains a little of what we’re seeing. It’s certainly interesting to get this brief glimpse at how studio filmmaking was done in France before the New Wave.
  • We get around 27 minutes of Cinéastes de notre temps: Jacques Becker (1967, dir. Claude de Givray), originally well over an hour in length, although another five minutes show up on the Touchez pas au grisbi disc, next up in the Criterion collection. Several of Becker’s collaborators speak about his work (he died in 1960, shortly after Le Trou), and Givray’s technique with the talking heads is to cross-cut between them, as if they’re all in dialogue with one another, and may be a tip of the hat to Becker’s own (relatively) frenetic editing style, which his editor Marguerite Renoir speaks a bit about.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Jacques Becker; Writers Becker and Jacques Companéez; Cinematographer Robert Le Febvre; Starring Simone Signoret, Serge Reggiani, Claude Dauphin; Length 98 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), London, Sunday 27 October 2019.

Criterion Sunday 268: 野獣の青春 Yaju no Seishun (Youth of the Beast, 1963)

I can’t honestly tell you I understood every twist and turn in this film about a man seeking revenge for the death of his friend. It starts out in black-and-white as we happen upon an apparent double-suicide of a cop and his girlfriend, though even here there is a splash of colour in some roses, before we barrel straight into the rest of the movie, in sharp poppy colours in a widescreen format. In truth it’s the visuals that really stand out here, and director Suzuki has an eye for framing in what is very much a stylish picture. As for the plot, our anti-hero Jo (played by the easily-recognisable Joe Shishido) swings through various setups involving gangsters and hangers-on, pretty liberally wielding his fists, guns and even a spraycan he’s adapted into a flamethrower to elicit the information he wants about who was responsible for what in those opening scenes he clearly thinks was a murder. It zips along at a good pace but it always retains its pop-art appeal.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Seijun Suzuki 鈴木清順; Writers Ichiro Ikeda 池田一朗 and Tadaaki Yamazaki 山崎忠昭 (based on the novel 人狩り by Haruhiko Oyabu 大藪春彦); Cinematographer Kazue Nagatsuka 永塚一栄; Starring Joe Shishido 宍戸錠, Misako Watanabe 渡辺美佐子; Length 92 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Friday 20 September 2019.

Paid in Full (2002)

The 1990s and 2000s were a fertile time for films about a very specific strand of Black American urban experience, specifically around gangs, drugs and violent crime. It is beyond the scope of my own lived experience to suggest how this media portrayal might have made an impact on society itself and the perception of African-American lives in the United States, but it is unquestionably the case that these are the topics which were getting funding by the studios, and so filmmakers used it to make some hard-hitting dramas about people living at edges of society. There were of course also a number of rather patchy, exploitative films that just gloried in the drugs and the guns, the hookers and the blow, but occasionally even in this crowded field, a film would have a more nuanced point of view, with expressive acting and a stronger screenplay than often required by those with the money.


There have never been any shortage of filmic depictions of the Black experience of inner city crime, both as victims of it and perpetrators, and there’s already a deep and troubling lexicon of terms to describe these experiences. It feels like the 90s were a particularly prolific era of films about hustlers and thugs in the ghetto, but Paid in Full rises above a lot of the sub-par efforts by telling a story that has sweep and a certain operatic trajectory, without succumbing to some of the mythologisation and worn tropes: in short, it feels rooted in real experiences. The acting is all excellent too, an early pre-The Wire role for Wood Davis as Ace, who sort of brings the whole story together, with more showy turns from Mekhi Phifer and Cam’ron as people more inured to this world. I’ll obviously never really be able to judge its accuracy, but I certainly enjoyed the compelling way it played out on screen.

Paid in Full film posterCREDITS
Director Charles Stone III; Writers Matthew Cirulnick and Thulani Davis; Cinematographer Paul Sarossy; Starring Wood Harris, Mekhi Phifer, Cam’ron; Length 97 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), London, Friday 4 January 2019.

Guys and Dolls (1955)

Just one final review for my musicals-themed week, as I just watched this yesterday, and it feels like an important part of the musical landscape of 1950s America.


I don’t have a problem with this being a great stage musical (and I’ve certainly enjoyed it a lot on stage), but I’m not sure this is the best possible film version that could have been made from it. What I do like, that I didn’t think I would, was the sheer staginess of the whole thing: the opening sequence, the craps game near the end, and others where characters directly look at the camera and break the fourth wall fell so stage-bound there could almost be a proscenium arch around them. It all says ‘Hollywood musical’ pretty effectively and I think it kinda works for the already stylised form of the Runyon stories, in de-naturalising a pretty dark and naturalistic setting (gamblers, late-night dives, gangsters, and all that jazz). What I don’t buy is that these songs about the way men treat women (sorry, ‘guys’ treat ‘dolls’) never really seem particularly sarcastic and pointed, because Brando and Sinatra are pretty alpha guys who look good (Brando has rarely been as pretty as he is in this film), dress sharp, do all the right moves and make all the right noises — these are men in control, and so when they talk about being manipulated by women, there’s no sense of desperation or neediness, it just comes across as being a bit nasty or certainly a bit calculated. It’s also rather long. Still, there’s a huge amount that’s great too, there are at least a couple of really top songs (indeed, the “Luck Be a Lady” rendition was the only time I really felt Brando being vulnerable and needy, desperate for the luck of the dice, which I think needed to come out more elsewhere), and it looks great in the way that golden era Hollywood made so effortless.

Guys and Dolls film posterCREDITS
Director Joseph L. Mankiewicz; Writers Mankiewicz and Ben Hecht (based on the musical by Frank Loesser, Abe Burrows and Jo Swerling, itself based on the short stories “The Idyll of Miss Sarah Brown” and “Blood Pressure” by Damon Runyon); Cinematographer Harry Stradling; Starring Marlon Brando, Frank Sinatra, Jean Simmons, Vivian Blaine, Stubby Kaye; Length 150 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT3), London, Saturday 19 October 2019.

Love Me or Leave Me (1955)

You can’t possible cover musicals without touching on the output of Doris Day, truly a luminous figure in the 1950s for Hollywood musicals. Today’s film marks rather an odd and startling entry into the genre, with some pretty dark themes. However, it has its share of big numbers, and Day carries it through easily.


Having gone to see this because I assumed “Doris Day” + “musical” would mean light and fluffy (thinking to her 1960s roles perhaps), I was rather taken aback by quite how dark this behind-the-scenes of the entertainment business story is. It’s a fictionalised version of a real story from the 1920s and 30s, of nightclub dancer Ruth Etting (Doris Day) whose career takes off as a singer and Hollywood actor thanks to some initial help from small-time gangster Marty Snyder (James Cagney), but then she finds herself stuck with him. Right from the off he’s aggressive and unpleasant, believing himself to be far more than he really is and taking violent umbrage to anyone who disputes his narcissistic idea of himself. There are these occasional quiet moments where you get the sense of his inner turmoil, but he’s never anything less than utterly vile, a nasty violent spirit of pure patriarchy at work, shaping Ruth’s career and pushing her to do things he wants (and to quit the things he doesn’t want as soon as the power starts to go her way).

Day is excellent in moving between this glamorous stage presence to a woman behind the scenes who is barely able to control anything she does and lacks the will to follow it through — being a big mainstream musical, there are times when you can see how much darker this could go though the film sort of swerves to avoid some of the narratives being set up: for example, we see her starting to drink heavily as her relationship gets worse; or there’s the fade to newspaper headlines about her sudden marriage to her manager Marty just after he basically initiates a rape to extract what he think’s he’s “owed”. Truly, there is some deeply bleak stuff in what is otherwise a handsomely staged period musical, which makes it both difficult to watch at times but also fascinating.

Love Me or Leave Me film posterCREDITS
Director Charles Vidor; Writers Daniel Fuchs and Isobel Lennart; Cinematographer Arthur E. Arling; Starring Doris Day, James Cagney, Cameron Mitchell; Length 122 minutes.
Seen at Regent Street Cinema, London, Wednesday 24 July 2019.

Criterion Sunday 254: The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976)

Back in the day I used to say this was my favourite of Cassavetes’ films, and though I probably like Shadows or A Woman Under the Influence better in retrospect, it’s still pretty powerful. Cassavetes approaches an almost genre theme — as the title suggests, there’s a gangland hit involved — but he approaches it obliquely. Watching the original 1976 135 minute cut, it takes almost an hour or so to even get to that point, and what we see is a portrait of a man who runs a nightclub (a strip club), arranging and putting together the shows. For all his evident sleaziness and self-absorption, he also clearly cares about his club and his dancers, but he also has a gambling problem that leads to the title’s killing, and ends up being his downfall. The film, however, remains focused at all times on Ben Gazzara’s Cosmo (who could be read as a directorial stand-in, in the way of many great films about art made by artists), on his flaws but also his strange, sweet integrity.

The shorter 1978 cut of the film certainly gets to the plot a lot quicker, and does a better job overall of setting up the machinations that lead to the action of the title, though we still get a strong sense of Cosmo’s world, particularly his drab nightclub with its ridiculous amateurish routines that nevertheless he is still utterly invested in. But once the hit happens, it seems to slip back into the rhythms of the longer cut, upping the existential angst of its protagonist as he faces (possible) mortality, with things unravelling on the business side as his ties with the mobsters who keep him afloat seem to fall away, even as he desperately tries to keep everything under control. The way Cosmo pretends everything is normal, that he is in (creative) control, even when he seems to be slowly losing everything is at the heart of both films ultimately.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • Ben Gazzara and Al Ruban speak in the mid-2000s to the Criterion Collection about the film, with Gazzara in particular unpacking it as the portrait of a misunderstood artist (Cassavetes himself).
  • There’s also a short audio interview with two French critics from the time, where Cassavetes gets a little tetchy about his film being described as a genre piece — although the point the critics were making is that it uses such conceits as a starting place, but certainly doesn’t define the film.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer John Cassavetes; Cinematographers Al Ruban and Mitch Breit; Starring Ben Gazzara, Seymour Cassel, Timothy Carey, Azizi Johari; Length 135 minutes [original version] and 108 minutes [1978 re-edit].

Seen at National Library, Wellington, Wednesday 15 May 2002 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, January 1998, and most recently on Blu-ray at home, London, Saturday 6 July 2019 [original version] and Wednesday 24 July 2019 [1978 re-edit]).

Criterion Sunday 231: Das Testament des Doktor Mabuse (The Testament of Dr Mabuse, 1933)

Fritz Lang’s last film in Germany is this reprise of his silent film character, a venerable archetype of the genre (a mad scientist locked up for his criminal mastermindery). This film takes the character and creates a mystery thriller with another mad scientist who appears to have been possessed by the spirit of Dr Mabuse, inspired by Mabuse’s detailed writings into committing a series of heists and crimes. There’s a lot of gripping cross-cutting, and some genuinely thrilling scenes as characters look like they’re done for, many of which have been reprised in subsequent cinema history. It’s a top jaunt, and good fun too. Of course, there’s also a subtext about Nazis there if you want to find it (it may have been too early to be specifically about the rise of Hitler, but it’s certainly premonitory and presumably tapped into the stirrings within contemporary German society).


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Fritz Lang; Writers Thea von Harbou and Lang; Cinematographers Karl Vash and Fritz Arno Wagner; Starring Rudolf Klein-Rogge, Otto Wernicke; Length 124 minutes.

Seen at Paramount, Wellington, Thursday 25 June 1998 (and most recently on DVD at a friend’s home, London, Sunday 21 October 2018).

Criterion Sunday 174: Bande à part (The Outsiders aka Band of Outsiders, 1964)

I’ve seen this film a bunch of times (and written about in on here before), and each successive time I watch it, I think I become a little less enamoured with it — not unlike the Tarantino films, whose production company is inspired by the title of this film. You remember the dance, the verve, Anna Karina’s face framed in class, almost solarised like a Man Ray print, with her big eyes. You remember Sami Frey’s nonchalance, you remember the beautiful monochrome photography, those Paris street scenes shot from a moving car, the run through the Louvre, the feeling of young lives, of being young. But there’s also this nasty little plot about them staging a heist, and they’re all really dull unlikable people at heart, and I just wonder if it’s a film about people or a film about people in films, and if it’s the latter why really should I care, at least on the third or fourth watch? Maybe some films work better when you see them once and then try to remember what you loved about them.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Jean-Luc Godard (based on Fools’ Gold by Dolores Hitchens); Cinematographer Raoul Coutard; Starring Anna Karina, Claude Brasseur, Sami Frey; Length 97 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 1 October 2017 (and originally on VHS at home, Wellington, June 2002, and since then on DVD).